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The Pac-12 added a PR nightmare to its officiating problems

Officiating is about perception, and the Pac-12 continues to bungle its handling of a game that happened a month ago.

NCAA Football: UCLA at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

We’re now past the one-month mark since Washington State and USC played in a Friday night game whose fallout won’t go away. Twice in the game — once late during Washington State’s final drive and earlier as JT Daniels took a knee after a botched snap — officials were caught in a targeting mess. Those two calls have unfurled into accusations of bias, the revelation that the replay process included the Pac-12 head of football, a bunch of angry text messages between Mike Leach and commissioner Larry Scott, and, now, a change in protocol and some kind of discipline.

That’s a lot to unpack! So let’s do just that.

The first hit

The immediately noticeable controversy came on the Cougars final drive, when quarterback Gardner Minshew took a shot to the head from USC linebacker Porter Gustin. Play went on without a stoppage for replay or otherwise, despite the hit exhibiting all the indicators of targeting.

A statement on the Minshew hit

Because it was a Friday night game, there was a nearly-immediate opportunity to ask Scott about the hit on Minshew. The next night, during his weekly scrum at the Pac-12 game he travels to, Scott told reporters that the Minshew play was close, but ultimately not targeting. He also mentioned that you could assume the replay officials followed the process and it was determined not to be targeting.

This set off another uproar — with many who have seen the play wondering how it didn’t fit the textbook examples of targeting. Desmond Howard even questioned Scott’s sobriety.

Scott later clarified that he was speaking generally and that his comments were misinterpreted. This gave the call days more of life, and did nothing to quell a growing controversy.

Leach drops a name

This part didn’t make a ton of sense at time, but is important. On Monday after the game, Leach was asked about the targeting call and, in an effort to avoid a fine, declined to comment. But he did mention a name: Woodie Dixon, the Pac-12 head of football, VP of Business Affairs, and General Counsel.

There was a second hit, and a worse problem

There was another hit in the same game that mostly flew under the radar until later. At the end of the third quarter, Washington State linebacker Logan Tago awkwardly hit Daniels high during a botched snap as the USC quarterback kneeled down. Tago was flagged for a personal foul and the play was reviewed for targeting, with officials ultimately announcing that no targeting was called. And then everyone forgot about the hit for a while.

And then a review document from the game showed up. In it, the official writes:

“Both the replay booth and the command center agreed this was a targeting foul, but unfortunately a third party did not agree so the targeting was removed and we went with the ruling on the field of [roughing the passer] with no targeting. This didn’t play well on TV. Reversed my stoppage for [targeting] to not [targeting].”

Suddenly, Leach’s comment made a ton of sense. The “third party” was Dixon, who phoned in his opinion to the replay center that the hit wasn’t targeting. Officials apparently took this as overruling the decision they’d all come to (that Tago’s hit was targeting) and went with Dixon’s opinion.

This was, the conference admits, part of the process, though Scott later said that Dixon was not meant to have power to overrule everyone but to add his opinion to the mix. Scott also correctly noted this past Saturday that involving someone with the seniority and stature of Dixon creates a situation where officials may feel like they have to go with his opinion.

There’s a human part to this, too: adding an executive that can, in theory, overrule a review creates a natural hesitation for the rest of the officials involved. Being overruled impacts performance reviews and the officials themselves. If an officiating crew all agrees a play is targeting but hears a counter-opinion from an executive in the moment, would that same crew subconsciously lean towards not calling targeting later as the same executive looks on?

Also of note: That vicious shot to Minshew’s head by a player just coming off a targeting suspension two quarters earlier was left unaddressed in any meaningful way.

Mike Leach sent some text messages

Leach has been leaving breadcrumbs this whole time, starting with mentioning Dixon after the USC game. And because coaches can’t speak about officials without being fined, Leach found a way to speak out that sidesteps the rules (he’s a lawyer, remember): He sent text messages from his work phone to Scott, Dixon and Pac-12 head of officials David Coleman. Leach, like any reporter covering college football, likely knows what’s covered by public records requests, including any text messages sent from a university phone.

So Leach unloaded on Scott and two of his top officials via text, lambasting the conference’s commitment to player safety and calling Dixon “scared” of USC. Nearly a month after the USC game, those text messages were released in a records request by Yahoo. They were the unfiltered thoughts Leach had been hinting at, left right there in plain sight to be found.

Whether it was his intention or not, Leach's actions are also a commentary on the threats of fines for speaking about officials and a lack of transparency into the officiating process. If Leach didn’t leave crumbs to scoop up, while also sidestepping a fine, it’s likely the public wouldn’t know about this. Same with the official report following the USC game that was leaked to the press, which shed light on Dixon’s involvement in the process.

Changes are announced, and so are some unknown punishments

On Wednesday, the conference announced the results of its internal review into the non-targeting call on Tago along with a joint statement from the athletic directors and Scott.

The review recommendations to be implemented are: (i) a protocol that clearly states that the instant replay supervisor in the San Francisco centralized replay facility has final decision-making authority, and that no administrator shall play any role in the deliberations, (ii) the development of a comprehensive manual governing all aspects of instant replay officiating, including detailed protocols and procedures, and (iii) disciplinary measures imposed on certain Pac-12 personnel responsible for the inadequate procedures and involved in the inappropriate influencing of the replay official’s decision in the USC vs. Washington State game.

The Pac-12 Athletic Directors jointly stated: “The safety of our student-athletes has been and will always be a priority with the Pac-12 Conference. The Conference office has acknowledged that mistakes have been made in our football replay process specific to the USC vs. Washington State game played on September 21, 2018. The Conference office has taken action with the personnel involved with the game and have made important changes to the replay process and protocol. These revisions have been presented to the Athletic Directors and we support the changes that have been implemented. Moving forward, we have confidence in the integrity of our process and the personnel charged with monitoring the process.”

Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said, “It is clear that a mistake was made and that action needed to be taken, as nothing is more important than the safety of our student-athletes and the integrity of our competition. We have been leaders in both of these essential areas. We are determined to learn from this episode and strengthen our officiating processes as a result.”

It remains unclear what disciplinary measures were imposed, and on whom, as a result of the decision to implement the replay protocol and procedure used in the Washington State vs. USC game.

This probably isn’t a conspiracy

Leach is leaving breadcrumbs that seem to point to a conspiracy or bias. And while the conspiracy theories are fun — and the conference rigging football for USC is one that’s easy to latch on to — I tend to think things are a little more simple.

It’s not a conspiracy, but a series of bungling mistakes that point more toward ineptitude in this specific case.

The Pac-12 likely put senior officials in the replay booth to attempt to combat potential officiating mistakes with more in-the-moment oversight. The fact that the replay involved targeting is also important: It’s a point of emphasis, a player safety issue, and the most existential crisis football faces, and it’s also likely that the conference wanted to do everything it could to ensure it was clear it was taking targeting seriously. You can talk yourself in to putting more opinions and oversight in the booth under the guise of making sure you have enough eyes to get a call right.

It’s no secret that the conference’s officiating crews can be very hit or miss, and it’s not a new thing for Pac-12 officials to be maligned by the media and public. It’s also worth noting that the Friday night USC-Washington State game was the first big, primetime matchup of the season, where all eyes were on the Pac-12.

But by layering in the head of officials and head of football, the Pac-12 created a situation where the officials whose job it is to call a game had some of the most powerful people in the conference looking over their shoulder, explicitly empowered to give feedback in real time. It undercuts the authority of the officials who should know the rules and how to apply them best, and opens the conference up to accusations of undue influence. When people in charge of the business are involved in the process of officiating the game, you have a problem.

There’s a wall that’s talked about somewhat romantically in media between advertising and journalism. It’s the job of the journalists to do the day-to-day work and reporting, to tell stories and create content, and the job of a sales team that’s walled off from that to create revenue in the form of sales to agencies and corporate clients. If that wall doesn’t exist, the potential for bias and undue influence on the actual product — paying, essentially, for influence — goes up exponentially.

That’s basically what happened here in a way. The conference put someone in charge of the business into an officiating process, and the perception that creates either never came up or was ignored. It’s an extreme error in judgment that opens the conference up to accusations of bias or worse, even if the intent was to improve an ailing officiating process.

Scott keeps making this worse for the conference

Larry Scott’s job is, primarily, to protect the interests of the conference and its member institutions and make money for the conference. He, like all sports commissioners, serves the members, and works at their pleasure.

In the face of serious accusations from his own officials and member institutions, including from a current coach, the Pac-12 continues to hide the ball and produce vague and varying statements. This has caused the controversy from a game that happened over a month ago to drag on and on, with still no end in sight.

There has yet to be full and upfront transparency, with any insight only coming after coaches and media have uncovered documents or records that prompt questions. The hit on Minshew has yet to be explained. A replay manual only turned up after a lot of digging by John Canzano, and it doesn’t appear Scott knew that manual existed in the first place. The fact that an executive was involved in the replay process was only known after Leach mentioned a name and a replay report from the game was leaked. While Dixon’s involvement in the process was passively deemed a mistake, any punishment resulting from the decision-making process has been shielded behind vague, general statements meant to appease without saying much.

All of this opens the conference up to accusations of impropriety. Even if the Pac-12 isn’t actually hiding anything — and, again, this probably isn’t some grand conspiracy — the above actions lend themselves to the perception that the conference is hiding something.

Perception is everything in officiating. It’s an incredibly hard job to do, especially in football with action all over the field happening at high-speed. It’s important to get high-impact calls right, but even more important to explain, in a transparent way, the rulings and thought process behind controversial calls. Fans and administrators can disagree with the ruling, but it becomes a lot harder to call into question the integrity of the game when an explanation is given in a clear, public way.

This hasn’t happened in a consistent way in the month since the USC game, and any messaging only came about after being pressed repeatedly to reveal more while presenting evidence that had to be responded to. That’s on Scott as the leader of the conference. He’s found himself positioned against parts of the membership that employs him while both protecting executives he employs and undermining the officials who do the difficult job of protecting the integrity of the game on the field. That’s a problem that’s going to be hard to make go away at this point.